Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink
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Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink

Albatross around our necks

Albatross around our necks

Passed Id-Dar tal-Providenza, the sun-bleached landscape is muted by layers of dust pluming out of a Polidano quarry. The signature blue and white trucks barge up and down the road, in and out of the quarry. Kicking up a permanent fog of dust.

It is late October, two o’clock in the afternoon, and I’m scrambling down the hill to get to the sea. The sky is a blue-grey and the sun is hot.

Cleared the dust, down the winding potholed road.

To the left, fertile terraced fields, patches of browns, dry, dark, sandy, umber.

Weathered grey stone outcrops, curving lines of rubble walls and the sun-beaten limestone yellow, broken by sparse covering greens.

Bushes of carob trees, spades of the bajtar, dot the fields.

Farmers’ rooms and hunters’ outposts. Lone, erect electricity poles, wires slackly follow atop their path.

A neoish-gothic tower stands (thankfully?) abandoned.

By the side of the road tall fennels sway in the wind.

Malta built its economy on the back of its natural resources – sun, sea and stone – converting them into human sources: congestion, construction and corruption

The garigue terrain dips down towards the sea, stopped by the cliff edge.

Prevailing winds load the air with salt. The sound of the sea banging against the cliffs is drowned out by a mechanical hum coming from the reverse osmosis plant.

Quarries to the left, desalination plants to the right. In the middle, our paradise lost.

Malta built its economy on the back of its natural resources – sun, sea and stone – converting them into human sources: congestion, construction and corruption. But something worse is going...

“Will there be enough water?” Jack and Alison sing.

“I doubt it.”

“Because as you know, without it we won’t even be able to enjoy the memories of this para­dise lost.”

According to the Malta Water Association (MWA), Malta is one of the 10 poorest countries globally in terms of water resources per inhabitant. Other water-strapped countries in­clude Bahrain, Jordon, Libya, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

“The water is salty and putrid but there are good springs which are probably due to rain fallen in winter time. The origin of these springs in not very deep, they often disappear in summer but they always diminish in volume. One generally drinks rainwater collected in tanks or in ditches.”

Knight Quintinus Haedus, 1536.

Then, water was sourced from springs and precipitation; back then it was valued. Today, four 1980s-built RO plants and a pandemonium of unregulated drill­ed boreholes quench our develop­ment’s thirst.

Water Production in Malta

• WSC desalinisation production – 32 per cent.

• Private groundwater extraction – 30 per cent.

• WSC groundwater extraction – 26 per cent.

• Rainwater harvesting – seven per cent.

• Treated sewage effluent – three per cent.

• Private desalinisation production – two per cent.

(Source: FAO, 2003 data)

In 2006 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published the Malta Water Resources Review… Not much has changed since Quintinus’ report, except that the FAO report has be largely ignored by successive administrations.

With a yearly average precipi­tation of 400 to 500mm, and an evapotranspiration rate of approximately 390mm, you would think this “natural re­source, which falls from heaven,” (1886 Civil Code) would be considered gold. Yet in urban zones, 80 per cent of this precipi­tation is lost to runoff.

Declining levels of precipitation and our lackadaisical attitude to­wards water runoff has resulted in a greater borehole dependency.

We suck through unregulated boreholes. To water our ailing crops, and top our bloated pools, we suck. We’ve unwittedly sucked so hard, it’s now beginning to taste a little salty.

Pumping water at a rate 50 per cent higher than it is sustainably replenished isn’t the only problem aquifers face. Over-extraction is causing salinisation of the water table. We are poisoning it with chemicals dumped on the surface, pesticides, fertilizers, lead, and so forth. They seep through our thin layer of soil, down our porous stone, into the water table. Extracted to irrigate the crops that end up on your table, and in your mouth.

Mmmmm.

The situation isn’t good, we’ve known this for a while. All the reports concur. The farmers are worried, the priests are a-praying and the Fatheads swim in their pools.

Every year the water association raises the need for a national water management plan. Every year the government lightly brushes it off.

We need a national water management plan, we need good water governance, and we need water education, before we end up needing Water Marshall Law.

This isn’t fiction, we need to act. We are seeing water shortages all over the world in the US (California and Texas), Australia and Spain. Water wars are erupting in Mexico and fuelling the Middle East’s.

Is it comforting knowing that we are not alone?

Once the last drop has been spilt, no matter how many priests pray, or boreholes dug, we shall be alone in our paradise lost.

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